Sad Sackdom, Rendered Dreamlike, in You, the Living


You, the Living flips through 50-some single-panel vignettes, many very funny, arranged by Roy Andersson, a Swedish director best known for his commercial work and 2000’s Songs From the Second Floor. An (almost always) stationary camera captures a procession of lugubrious Stockholmians; the caption to most of the stills could be “I can’t go on.”

Connections between scenes are loose, if any. Only a few characters recur. Each tableau is meticulously arranged; those built around gags tend to resonate longer than the few that only wallow in abjection. A heaplike fiftyish biker gal replays teen-angst classics (“Nobody understands me!”) for her boyfriend in a public park. A man hunched over a walker obliviously drags his pet terrier behind him, tangled in its leash. A prematurely embalmed-looking fellow complains about his pension plans while his stout Brünnhilde of a wife mounts him. Andersson delights particularly in left-outs: the guy who can’t squeeze into the busstop during a downpour; the natty little suitor getting his bouquet smashed in a slamming door; the odd-man guest at a haute bourgeoisie family dinner, preparing an idiotic party trick.

The sum total is the reflection of a worldview—sad sack, bordering on “Everybody Hurts” black-velvet sad-clown bathos—rather than any narrative. The return to a barroom at last call is a key refrain. Any available sunlight is a wan wash. Workplaces give the stale smell of upcoming bankruptcy. Andersson’s models are largely the lumpen middle-aged and senile homunculi, a catalog of baldness patterns. The notable exception is a twentyish girl, seen getting herself picked up by the aloof, extravagantly coiffed frontman of the Black Devils, then wandering about, crying over her abandonment in jilted morning-aftermath. You, the Living, which slips into visualized dreamlife, later shows her reverie of rock-star domesticity in a bridal suite that one only gradually notices is gliding over the countryside, her groom ringing out a dulcet wedding solo when they pull into a station crowded with well-wishers.

The title comes from Goethe’s Roman Elegies, an admonition to appreciate one’s measure of life “before Lethe’s ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.” This I take to be one of Andersson’s dry jokes, as his anhedonic characters already seem settled in Hades—a streetcar even lists Lethe as its destination. The actors’ skin is zombie-palled with plastery powder, like a fallout of some unknown catastrophe—and the film is aptly bookended by apocalypse, a dream-premonition that’s called back as a punchline.